If you’ve been taken by the urge to Marie Kondo your life this January, you may want to make sure you’re not gifting a valuable heirloom to the local junk shop. While it’s unlikely you have a forgotten Rembrandt or a rare Cartier gathering dust in the loft, it’s never too late to think about valuing any art or jewellery you own, or too early to start building a collection.
We asked two of Sotheby’s foremost experts in fine jewellery and Old Masters paintings for some advice. David Bennett, a world-renowned expert in precious stones and jewellery, has succeeded in selling four out of five of the most expensive jewels in auction history. Emily Black, a specialist in Old Master paintings has more than 20 years experience in the international art market and is also active as a freelance art-history lecturer and researcher.
- What should I look out for when buying jewellery?
David: Focus on quality, rather than the size or type of stone or jewel. Whether you’re looking at an exceptional rare diamond, a fine coloured gemstone, or an iconic piece of signed jewellery from a celebrated house, it’s the quality, and the rarity it implies, which will always endure. For diamonds, this includes the combination of colour, clarity, cut and number of carats. For coloured gemstones, geographical origin plays a key role. Illustrious provenance, such as royal or noble history, can also make a difference of many multiples when it comes to the final price achieved at auction. Try to learn all you can about the different categories of diamonds, coloured diamonds and precious stones. By exploring the fascinating history of jewellery you can get an idea of which period suits your taste – from antique to Art Deco or modern styles.
- And if I’m buying an Old Master?
Emily: It may sound obvious, but we always encourage clients to buy what they like. Spend as much time as possible looking at pictures in the great museum collections. Establish a certain focus, then find the works you like within that area. After that, there are many factors to consider: attribution, condition, accuracy of the estimate, provenance, and (if you’re considering re-selling in the near future) the commerciality of the subject matter.
- How can Sotheby’s help me?
Emily: Our Old Master Paintings Department offers paintings by European artists from the late 13th to early 19th centuries. Our global team has 20 dedicated specialists with expertise covering all schools in this diverse category, including Dutch, French, Spanish, British and Italian paintings among others. They offer complementary valuations and personalised advice. They also have unparalleled relationships with established collectors and new buyers alike, which have resulted in numerous world record prices. Our specialists carry out extensive research on each work offered in our sales. Occasionally we also conduct scientific examinations, such as pigment analysis or x-ray. Sotheby’s being the first, and is still the only, auction house to have a Department of Scientific Research.
David: We share lots of information in our print catalogues and on Sothebys.com about each of our jewellery auctions and we’re very active on social media. Our specialists regularly visit our 80 regional offices in 40 countries. They’re always happy to give insights about how to start a collection and shape it according to your personal style, as well as the jewels and precious objects coming up in our auctions.
- Is there a good time of year to buy or sell at auction?
David: People choose to buy and sell jewellery for all sorts of reasons. It often marks an important moment in life. It’s rather personal and intimate, more so than when buying art, I would say. We hold auctions throughout the year, from Geneva and London to New York and Hong Kong. We also arrange exhibitions in other locations to give collectors the chance to see pieces up close and to try them on.
- What are your tips for understanding current market trends in jewellery?
David: Take advantage of all the online resources available. Follow auction houses like ours (which publish a huge amount of information about the jewels they sell, as well as the prices they reach) and the ever-increasing number of fairs, blogs and specialised media. You can learn a lot from observing, and engaging with, specialists in the field.
- How does the Old Masters market compare to contemporary art?
Emily: There’s more and more crossover buying. Contemporary art collectors are increasingly active in our Old Masters sales. The market in general is global. As in our contemporary auctions, the people participating in our Old Masters sales represent four continents, with a regular increase in Asian, Russian and Latin American and Middle Eastern bidding.
- What were the most sought-after items in your respective fields in 2017?
David: We continued to see strong demand for the highest-quality coloured diamonds. The ‘CTF Pink Star’, a 59.60-carat fancy vivid pink diamond, set a world auction record this year for a diamond or gemstone. It sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April for USD 71.2 million. There’s also been huge enthusiasm for the finest coloured gemstones. As we celebrate ten years of Noble Jewels sales here in Geneva, it’s wonderful to see that collectors are still fascinated by jewels of historic importance, or that belong to significant aristocratic collections. Signed jewels from the world’s greatest jewellery houses, such as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels also generated a lot of interest. I believe these categories will be among the most coveted in 2018.
Emily: It was a very good year for British paintings. The spectacular ‘View of Ehrbreistein’ by Turner sold for GBP 18.5 million in July, while the wonderfully romantic ‘Academy by Lamplight’, by Joseph Wright of Derby made GBP 7.3 million in December. Strong imagery and great names have long driven the Old Masters market, but in the last few years we’ve witnessed a surge of interest in both Early and High Renaissance paintings among international collectors.
- What other interesting pieces did you see?
Emily: In December we had an unusually large group of early Italian, German and Netherlandish works that were particularly well received. Their graphic quality and strong colours clearly appeal to today’s aesthetic.
David: We achieved a record for a fancy light pink diamond in November, with the sale of a 33.63-carat pink gemstone in Geneva for CHF 12.6 million. This diamond was exquisite: exceptional colour, excellent cut, and wonderful clarity. It belonged to the coveted ‘Type IIa’ category of diamonds, which possess superlative transparency and chemical purity. It was beautifully mounted as a ring, and signed by the ‘King of Diamonds’ Harry Winston. It had impeccable noble provenance, coming from the collection of a European countess and having been treasured by the same noble family for more than 45 years.
- Did anything surprise you?
David: We offered a lot with a very memorable story in June. The person who consigned the piece – a ring – bought it in a car boot sale in the 1980s for around GBP 10. They wanted to know if it had any greater value. It turned out to be a colourless diamond weighing 26 carats, dating back to the 19th century. At auction it reached more than GBP 650,000, about 66,000 times what the seller originally paid for it.
- Which are you most looking forward to in 2018?
David: You never know what the next season has in store. One of the most exciting parts of my job is the treasure hunt – what you might discover in people’s jewellery collections, or what they might bring to Sotheby’s for our advice.
Emily: Our January sales in New York will be very special. We have a monumental, visually arresting painting by Titian that’s valued at around USD 2-3 million. There’s also an exceptional collection of 28 drawings that includes work from El Greco, Francesco Guardi and Lucian Freud. It’s unique in its combination of small overall size, great chronological span and high quality. It really charts the art of drawing in Western Europe over the last 500 years.